A white woman’s self-proclaimed “transracial” identity has sparked discussion ― and some confusion ― among people of Filipino heritage.
The woman, who told HuffPost she identifies as transgender and is in the process of legally changing her name to “Ja Du,” recently told a news station in Tampa, Florida, that she identifies as Filipina. She has started a Facebook group for others who identify as “transracial.”
“I think things that make no sense to most people make sense to us on an individual level in almost every person, like a swelling feeling you feel when you listen to dramatic music,” Ja Du told HuffPost in an online message. “It’s all sound and vibration but something in it relates to your soul on such a subconscious level that you connect with it and [that’s] how I feel about the Filipino culture.”
As the subsequent deluge of criticism on social media suggests, some in the Filipino-American community aren’t pleased. Ben de Guzman, an executive committee member of the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project, told HuffPost that when someone tries to take on the identity of a different race, they overlook the struggles of that community.
“For Filipinos who don’t have the luxury of making the decision to identify as another race in a society where whiteness as a default places real constraints about how people of color can decide to move in the world, this smacks of white privilege in the worst way,” de Guzman said in an email.
“I welcome the attention greatly,” Ja Du told HuffPost. “I want to be a group that teaches people to speak and listen to each other.”
In addition to taking what she claims is a Philippine name, Ja Du says she enjoys Philippine food and music and feels most intrigued by TV shows on Philippine culture. She also drives a purple motorized rickshaw that she calls a “tuk-tuk.”
However, de Guzman isn’t so sure some of Ja Du’s references are authentic.
“The Filipino references she uses are, to speak kindly, ‘interesting,’” he said.
As de Guzman points out, Filipinos more commonly refer to motorized rickshaws as “trisikels” ― not “tuk-tuks,” which is more of a Thai term. And the name “Ja Du” doesn’t seem particularly Philippine. However, given the mix of influences in the Filipino identity, the “culture perhaps opens itself up to the kind of transgressing traditional cultural and racial boundaries she’s interested in,” de Guzman said.
Many, including de Guzman, have compared Ja Du to Rachel Dolezal, the white woman and former NAACP chapter president who infamously identifies as black. De Guzman said he finds Ja Du’s claims of identity offensive in a political sense. Filipino-Americans deal with a number of issues that disproportionately affect their community, including crackdowns on immigration, a variety of health disparities, and stereotyping and discrimination in their daily lives. In one study involving Filipino-Americans in the Bay Area, 99 percent of the participants said they’d experienced at least one incident of everyday racism in the past year.
“When you begin to use the language of ‘racial’ identification... it no longer becomes a question of how you identify for yourself, but implicates broader institutions where race and ethnicity have consequences in terms of laws and policies,” de Guzman said.
De Guzman explained that while he feels Ja Du does not have bad intentions, that doesn’t mitigate the effects of her decision. However, he said, it’s still possible for someone to celebrate and honor other cultures. De Guzman recommends reading works on Filipino-American identity ― he suggested authors like Anthony Ocampo, Kevin Nadal and E.J. Ramos David ― and engaging in legal and policy discussions.
“For me my colleagues and friends, this is not our watching the History Channel or gazing at our own navels,” de Guzman said. ”[It’s] our lives and our livelihoods.”